On January 12th, the 3,000-plus page report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was published. The years covered within the report are 1922 to 1998.
The commission found that some 56,000 women went through these mother and baby homes, and county homes during those years. However, this was not the only cohort of women who had unplanned pregnancies during this era. The fact is, there were many additional thousands of unplanned pregnancies in Ireland happening concurrently, particularly in the years from 1970 onwards.
The organisation Ally was established in 1971 by the late Dominican priest and academic, Fr Fergal O’Connor. His aim was to provide alternative options to mother and baby homes for unmarried pregnant women to seek refuge in.
A country-wide voluntary network of Catholic families, usually middle class with means to support an additional person to the household for several months, subsequently evolved via word of mouth. It was common for women to request to be placed with a family far from their own home county, so that they would not be recognised. Families who took in women received no money: however, the understanding was that the women would do some baby-sitting and light housework while in their placement. It was usual that the babies born at the end of this time were subsequently adopted, although not all were.
By 1973, more than 500 families had come forward to volunteer to be part of this network. In later years, Cura, the Catholic crisis pregnancy agency established in 1977, also used this family network for placements.
In 1980, there were 552 babies born in mother and baby homes. The report notes that in 1984, Cura received 7,353 phone queries, and in the same year, Ally helped 624 women who had unplanned pregnancies. It is clear that during the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of women with unplanned pregnancies opted to be placed with families around the country, rather than enter mother and baby homes.
Since covering this story, I have received a considerable number of emails from women now in their fifties and sixties, who spent their pregnancies in these placement families. They are emails written in deep distress, by women desperate to have their voices heard, and who consider themselves to be forgotten and retraumatised, because their losses have not been acknowledged by the commission.
“I would like to thank you for highlighting the plight of all us women who went through the ordeal of getting pregnant in the ‘bad old days’ but didn’t end up in a mother and baby home. Many of us went through the process on our own which appears to be forgotten about by the investigation,” wrote one woman, who had an unplanned pregnancy in the late 1970s.
I called some of these women and talked to them for hours at a time. These women, who were pregnant in the 1970s and 1980s, were not in the mother and baby homes; the Catholic and Protestant-ethos institutions or county homes upon which the commission focused its attention. They were within a different set of walls. Some placement families were compassionate and welcoming to the vulnerable women they admitted to their homes, and some were far less so.
Yet the outcome of these unplanned pregnancies, carried to term in secrecy within families far from their own homes, was exactly the same for many of these women as those in mother and baby homes: adoption of their babies.
“We need to move the historic narrative of unplanned pregnancies in Ireland on from the laundries and mother and baby homes,” one woman told me.
Despite its length, everyone I spoke to had familiarised themselves with the commission’s report, and were aware of the widely-quoted lines from it: “Some former residents and lobby groups have suggested that ‘adoption’ should be renamed ‘forced adoption’. The commission does not agree ... It accepts that the mothers did not have much choice but that is not the same as ‘forced adoptions’.”
“Legally, they might not have been forced adoptions. But in every other way, they were. I consider myself bereaved. When will our stories be included?” said another woman whom Cura placed with a family, and who gave up a son for adoption in 1986.
Language matters, and when it concerns such sensitive and life-changing matters, it matters very much indeed. Those contentious words in the report – which ironically even appeared under the heading, ‘The Language of Adoption’ – were deeply hurtful to many. They do not reflect the complex realities of the individual situations they attempted to describe. Behind every adoption during those years is a woman with a unique story of loss, and a child who was raised with a different family.
“To say these adoptions were not forced is a statement made without any understanding of the situation a young woman was in. When you are an outcast in your family and society you don’t have choices; you do what is expected of you and that’s ‘forced’,”, a woman who was pregnant in the 1970s told me.
Government allocated €23 million for the commission to do its work. At the time the report was given to the Government, the cost was at €11.5 million. It appears half the designated funds remain unspent.
Would the Government now consider allocating some of this money to fund, for a specific period of time, a dedicated helpline for all those women who had unplanned pregnancies in the past, and who wish to avail of such a service?
It would be a gesture of inclusion to the many women who consider their stories of loss to be still ignored, and still unheard.
Rosita Boland is Senior Features Writer